Saturday, April 24, 2010

What would the British Columbia legislature look like under a fair voting system?

What would the British Columbia legislature look like under a fair voting system?

There are two likely options for a fair voting system for BC provincial elections. The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform designed two systems in 2004.


They decided BC-STV was the best for BC, so that was the system that went before voters in a referendum, in 2005 and again in 2009. In 2005 voters were asked “Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform?” They voted 58% yes, but the government had set a 60% threshold for success. In 2009 voters were asked “Which electoral system should British Columbia use to elect members to the provincial Legislative Assembly? ▪ The existing electoral system (First-Past-the-Post) ▪ The single transferable vote electoral system (BC-STV) proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform." This time they voted only 39% for BC-STV.

However, a poll after the referendum showed that 44.3% of those who voted for first-past-the-post in the referendum responded they are in “favour of replacing first-past-the-post with a voting system in which the percentage of seats a party gets in the legislature is more in line with their percentage of the popular vote.” That makes 66% of BC voters in favour of some proportional system.

Why not STV?

STV has been used in Ireland since 1922. It’s the only thing Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic agree on; Northern Ireland has used it since 1973. And it has now spread across the sea to be used in Scotland’s local elections. To those familiar with STV, it’s an excellent system if the district magnitudes are large enough for decent proportionality, like Northern Ireland’s six-MLA districts, and the population per district is low enough, like Northern Ireland’s 98,000 people per district. Unfortunately BC voters are not familiar with STV. If the British Liberal Democrats had succeeded in moving the UK towards STV, this might have changed; but even they gave up.

Furthermore, the BC-STV model designed by the Electoral Boundaries Commission was not very proportional. With each district having, on average, only 4.25 MLAs, Green Party voters, who deserved to elect seven MLAs on the votes cast in 2009, would have been lucky to elect even three MLAs. Yet many BC voters complained that the proposed 20 districts, with an average population of about 222,000, were already unmanageably-large. This is not a trivial point. In a country with as much geography as Canada, fitting our geography into the voting system is the major design issue.

Open-list MMP

The Citizens’ Assembly (CA) designed, before they chose STV instead, an excellent Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system. The majority (60%) of MLAs are elected in local districts like today’s. The others are "top-up" regional MLAs: to compensate for the disproportional local results we know all too well, the party’s voters elect personally some regional MLAs.

See MMP Made Easy.

This is the system invented by British political scientists in 1946 in the British Zone of West Germany. It took the old German proportional representation system and grafted British personal MPs into it. “Personalized proportional representation” the Germans called it. “The best of both worlds” said political scientists.

With the CA’s regional "Open list" version, voters can vote for whomever they like out of the regional candidates nominated by the party's regional nomination process. The elected Regional MLAs are the party's regional candidates who get the highest vote on the regional ballot. You have two votes: one for local MLA, one for regional MLA which counts as a vote for your party. The German province of Bavaria does this too.

If the CA had chosen the “flexible list” variant, where you can vote for the list or for an individual on it, the ballot would have looked like the one recommended by the British Independent Commission on the Voting System (the Jenkins Commission). The voter casts one vote for local MLA, and one for their party and (if they wish) for their favourite of their party's regional candidates. This same model was recommended for Scotland by the Arbuthnott Commission as an improvement on their MMP system; but no action yet. The result is much the same with any open-list model: all MLAs have faced the voters, and no one has a safe seat. (But I'd bet the CA would have chosen straight open-list, the Bavarian model.)

Power to the voters

An exciting prospect: voters have new power to elect who they like. New voices from new forces in the legislature. No party rolls the dice and wins an artificial majority. Cooperation will have a higher value than vitriolic rhetoric. One-party dominance by the Premier’s office will, at last, be out of fashion. Governments will have to listen to MLAs, and MLAs will have to really listen to the people. MLAs can begin to act as the public servants they are.

Based on the Ontario and BC experience, many reformers now think open-list MMP with regional lists is the only system likely to be acceptable to Canadians.

Local districts and regions

The 51 local BC districts would each have about 87,000 people (smaller in the North, no doubt). The CA ran out of time before settling details like the number of regions, which might have been four, five or six; I’m using six, electing a total of 34 regional MLAs.

What would the legislature look like?

For an example, let’s see what the BC legislature would have looked like under this model if voters voted as they did in 2009.

This projection assumes voters voted as they did in 2009. In fact, if voters knew every vote would count, more would have voted -- typically at least 6% more. And some would have voted differently -- no more strategic voting. We would likely have seen different candidates -- more women, and more diversity of all kinds. We could have seen different parties. Who knows who might have won real democratic elections?

But on the votes as cast in 2009, the overall result is 41 Liberals, 37 New Democrats, 6 Greens, and independent Vicky Huntington.

Competing MLAs

Instead of having only a local MLA -- whom you quite likely didn’t vote for -- you can also go to one of your regional MLAs. On this projection, all six regions will have at least one regional MLA from each of the three parties. Even Northern voters, assuming they elected three local Liberals and two local New Democrats, would have elected one regional MLA from each party. Even Interior voters, where I expect Liberal voters would have elected seven of the ten local MLAs, would also have elected one regional Liberal MLA. Even Vancouver Island voters, where I expect NDP voters would have elected seven of the nine local MLAs, would also have elected one regional NDP MLA. That’s because the CA wisely chose a model with 40% regional MLAs.


Many NDP voters are under-represented. Voters in the Interior would have elected 16 MLAs (10 local, 6 regional), including two more NDP MLAs: maybe Doug Brown and Tish Lakes or Charlie Wyse or new candidate Lakhvinder Jhaj or Troy Sebastian?

Surrey-Delta-Langley-Fraser Valley voters would elect 17 MLAs (10 local, 7 regional), including two more NDP MLAs: maybe new candidates Debbie Lawrance and Pat Zanon or Bonnie Rai or Gwen O’Mahony or Lynn Perrin?

Vancouver-Richmond voters would elect 14 MLAs (8 local, 6 regional), including another NDP MLA: maybe Gabriel Yiu or Jenn McGinn or Helesia Luke?


Liberal voters on Vancouver Island are under-represented. Vancouver Island voters would elect 15 MLAs (9 local, 6 regional), including two more Liberal MLAs: maybe new candidates Marion Wright and Dawn Miller or Dianne St. Jacques or Cathy Basskin?

Green Party voters would have elected six MLAs.

Green Party voters in Vancouver Island would have elected a regional MLA, no doubt the leader Jane Sterk.

Vancouver-Richmond Green Party voters would have elected a regional MLA: maybe Damian Kettlewell or Vanessa Violini or John Boychuk or Jodie Emery?

Burnaby-Tri-Cities-North Shore-Maple Ridge voters would have elected 15 MLAs (9 local, 6 regional) including a Green Party regional MLA: maybe young Michelle Corcos or Helen Chang or Jim Stephenson?

Voters in the North would have elected 8 MLAs (5 local, 3 regional), including a Green Party regional MLA: maybe Liz Logan or Lisa Girbav?

In the Interior, Green Party voters would have elected a regional MLA: maybe Julius Bloomfield or Hughette Allen?

Surrey-Fraser Valley-Delta-Langley Green Party voters would have elected a regional MLA: maybe Bill Walsh or Kevin Purton or Bernadette Keenan?

Regional independents

The CA never had time to decide whether independent candidates should be able to run for regional seats. I‘d bet they would have said yes. Scotland uses regional MMP to elect the Scottish Parliament. Two independent candidates have won regional seats there, and two more in local seats. STV fans like the way independents can win any STV seat. But they can win any seat in Scotland too, with regional MMP.

More choices

Maybe independent Arthur Hadland would have won a regional seat in the North. Maybe independent David Marley would have won a regional seat.

The CA’s MMP model had a 3% threshold. The Conservative Party fell below that threshold in 2009, yet they got enough votes for a regional MLA in the Interior. In a real MMP election they would have been sure to exceed the 3% threshold and elect an Interior regional MLA -- their leader Wilf Hanni or Joe Cardoso or Beryl Ludwig -- and quite likely regional MLAs in other regions.

Trade-off from a province-wide model

The Green Party would have won seven seats, not six, under a perfectly proportional system with province-wide lists. Losing one seat, to get every MLA democratically accountable in a model that voters will accept, is a good trade-off.

Higher turnout

If voters knew every vote would count, more would have voted, and some would have voted differently. The Greens, for example, were so close to winning two seats on Vancouver Island and two in the Interior that in a real MMP election they would have been sure to win at least eight seats.

More women, minorities and younger candidates

With a choice of your party’s candidates on the regional ballot, we would elect more women. Polls show 94% of women voters want to see more women elected, but so do 86% of male voters.

And when parties nominate a group of candidates, not just one, they nominate more women. What regional convention, nominating five candidates, would nominate only one woman, or no minorities, or no young people?

The BC Green Party, for example, was very white in 2009: they had no Chinese-origin candidates in Vancouver-Richmond region, which is 33% Chinese, and only one token South Asian candidate in Surrey-Fraser Valley-Delta-Langley region, which is 17% South Asian.

Who would have been the government?

Contrary to what some Canadian newspaper headline-writers think, you cannot say the largest party will form the government. “Conservatives win!” say Canadian headline-writers even when Harper loses his bid for a majority. Compare the Times of London headline last May 7: “Britain wakes up to a hung Parliament.” No instant winner. Remember also 1985 in Ontario when Frank Miller lost his bid to win a majority. Who won? We found out only 26 days later when the Liberal-NDP Accord was signed. In most countries with more than two parties, coalitions are normal.

No “bed-sheet” ballots

Since local candidates can also be on the regional half of the ballot, voters might have had as many as ten of their party’s regional candidates to choose from, but not the “bed-sheet ballot“ found in some countries. So voters would have a real choice among a manageable number of competing candidates from the party they support.

In a 15-MLA region, suppose Party A’s voters cast 53% of the votes in the region, but elect only seven of the nine local MLAs. They also elect one regional MLA. But if that MLA dies or resigns during the legislature term, the regional candidate with the next highest votes moves into that seat. A party must run a spare. But if the seven local winners were also on the regional ballot, the party needed at least nine regional candidates, one elected, and one spare. To be safe I can see them nominating ten regional candidates.


Bernadette said...

I really like this especially the part that said I might have been elected. It is interesting to see the comparison of the systems and hear about the post election poll. Was not aware of that. will be passing this on. Thanks Wilf.

Wilf Day said...

Although the projection from my spreadsheet is only an exercise -- no one can be sure how voters would have voted if every vote counted -- we can say with certainty that Surrey-Fraser Valley-Delta-Langley Green Party voters would have elected at least one regional MLA. With 6.72% of the votes in a region with 17 MLAs, Green Party voters were entitled to elect 1.14 MLAs. And of course NDP voters, on the votes cast in 2009, were entitled to 6.96 MLAs in that region, so seven, not just five. But every part of the region would still have a local MLA, since 10 of the 17 will still be elected in local ridings.

mizdarlin said...

Interesting construct-perhaps the NDP would have had even more if voters knew what the possibilities were...
One problem-although I read this very closely, I still find it over-complicated as an explanation of a good alternate system...perhaps we need to take a cue from Tommy Douglas and create a cat and mouse story to explain in simpler terms what this means...right now, the average reader, I believe, would have been long lost, eyes glazed over from too many stats..
Someone, somewhere, has to figure out a way to keep it simple...

Wilf Day said...

Mizdarlin, I agree. I've added a reference to a short post on MMP Made Easy.

Unknown said...

- The MMP model being advocated here is one of the better ones. It's open list, so relative to closed-list PR or closed-list MMP, it will be less prone to patronage-style candidacies for the party lists. If we absolutely must have MMP, we could do much worse than this variant.

- The emphasis on MLAs having to "face the people" and "act like public servants" is definitely one that I encourage. There are times when I feel that many PR advocates have failed to consider this as an important objective, although my sense is that the public is very hungry for this as a part of any voting reform.

- The premise of the article appears to be that BC voters want PR, but they don't want STV. As one who actively campaigned in the BC-STV campaign, I can state with confidence that combining the 39% STV vote with 44% of FPTP voters supporting PR is highly misleading. Why? Because many, if not most, of those voters had no clue that STV actually is a form of PR! The No side of the referendum campaign was so much more effective with their messaging than we were that people were convinced of all sorts of crazy things when it came to STV and how it works. Voters walked into the polling stations thinking that their MLAs would disappear, that their votes will be chopped up randomly into little bits, that ballots would be longer than phone books, and that they would be forced to vote for their worst enemies. My point is that it is almost certainly incorrect to think that any alternative system would have fared much better given the circumstances surrounding the 2009 referendum. Speaking from experience, convincing informed voters that STV is a vast improvement over FPTP is pretty easy, but convincing a voter that it is worth being informed in the first place is the real challenge. Fortunately it is not all doom and gloom - the fact that 58% voted for STV in the first place shows that it can win adoption under the right circumstances.

- It's important to keep in mind that MMP (at least any version receiving serious attention in Canada) always has FPTP at its core, so there is unavoidable negative baggage that comes along with this. In this model, 3 MLAs out of 5 would continue to be elected using FPTP. I think it's overly optimistic to assert that safe seats would cease to exist, given that the FPTP mechanics virtually assure us otherwise. A Liberal candidate running on the FPTP side in the Okanagan would continue to enjoy near invincibility under this model (barring some sort of Liberal implosion which would have seen a dramatic loss under any voting system).

- MMP invariably suffers from the tradeoff between riding size and proportionality. In this model the ridings are 67% bigger than they are today. It's the only way to make room for those 34 top-up MLAs without increasing the size of the house (the latter choice being a near guarantee of losing a referendum). In the STV campaign it proved challenging to convince a change-averse electorate to accept STV districts four times current riding size to get four MLAs. It would be equally challenging, if not more so, to convince them that gaining 5 MLAs within a superdistrict equivalent to 14 current ridings is worth seeing their current riding expand to nearly double current size without getting an extra local MLA.

In short, let's not be too hasty. Every alternative voting system has something that its detractors will latch onto, and STV may well stand the best chance of adoption here in BC.

Wilf Day said...

As to your three critiques, they merit discussion.

First, no doubt support for “a fairer and more proportional alternative” is easier to get than support for any particular model. However, the figure of 66% of BC voters is far from misleading. “In addition to the 39% who were ready to adopt BC-STV, this means another 27% of the BC electorate appear ready to scrap first-past-the-post for a fairer system,” said Arjun Singh, President, Fair Voting BC.

Second, MMP indeed has local ridings at its core, so you say “A Liberal candidate running on the FPTP side in the Okanagan would continue to enjoy near invincibility” under MMP. But not the safe seat that closed-lists create. Anyway, under STV, the Okanagan-Boundary three-seater would have had two incumbents of the Liberal Party, who would almost certainly have run only two candidates: both would have been near-invincibly elected. In Ireland’s last STV election, of 77 Fianna Fail deputies elected, 31 had been the only Fianna Fail candidates in their district -- and this in an election where Fianna Fail lost four seats. No system abolishes sure-thing seats. But both the BC CA’s models give voters competing MLAs.

Third, is MMP’s geography better? BC-STV had a five-seater running from the American border and Princeton to Quesnel, so residents of Cariboo North and Fraser-Nicola might have found all their MLAs living in Kamloops. With MMP those five ridings become three local ridings, and residents of all three parts of this region would also have been able to call on a regional Liberal MLA, a regional Green MLA, and four regional NDP MLAs from different parts of the Interior. Lots of competition, PLUS a guarantee of a local player. The best of both worlds, no?

STV may well stand the best chance of adoption in BC? Sure. I just think its time people looked at the other option too.

Unknown said...

Fair enough - I think you're right that voters are broadly supportive of the objectives that lead to choosing either STV or this sort of system. I fear that without the confidence that comes with familiarity with the choices available, it will always be easy for opponents to sway voters with mostly untrue rhetoric.

Let's hope that events in the UK raise public awareness of PR up a notch - it can only help us the more people understand.

Wilf Day said...

Jamie, with the Lib Dems taking forward formal discussions and a policy negotiating process with the Labour Party -- and Labour admitting only a progressive coalition government with a new leader could meet “the demand for political and electoral change which the British people made last Thursday” -- I’d agree events in the UK may raise awareness. And hopes too.